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Mayors across the country are supporting the creation of innovation districts, designed to encourage local entrepreneurs, startups, universities, corporations and others to congregate in easily accessible places to work, live and play. Innovation districts also help draw top talent and create vibrant urban areas – two things every mayor wants for their cities – and create serendipitous opportunities for synergistic, collaborative activity between problem solvers (entrepreneurs) and problem holders/owners (government, institutions, citizens, others). Bruce Katz and Julie Wagner at Brookings believe these districts “are both competitive places and cool spaces.”
Many of the startups in these innovation districts are contributing to the economic vitality of cities while developing new products and services for other businesses and consumers. However, in the last year, I began wondering exactly how many startups are actually providing services to the city. Are the same city leaders who encourage entrepreneurs to live and work in their city actually consuming the services provided?
To facilitate discussions between city leaders and local startups, encourage more startups to work on solutions relevant to the public sector and provide government leaders with ideas that accelerate innovation, Microsoft’s Philadelphia-based team partnered with Benjamin’s Desk to host the first-ever Microsoft CityNext Customer Access Program (CAP) focused on the public sector. The Dec. 12 program gave six startups 10 minutes each to pitch their solutions to government attendees and others from the region’s startup ecosystem.
The Microsoft CityNext initiative helps cities accelerate innovation and the new CAP allowed Philadelphia city leaders to think outside the box by considering the worthwhile offerings of these startups:
  • Opportunity Space, an online marketplace for under-valued urban real estate, connects public sector land holders to for-profit and community developers and investors to accelerate the pace of revitalization and reinvestment in cities.
  • Insights helps cities make smarter decision by consulting their stakeholders via a crowd-sourcing platform that turns the wisdom of citizens, city employees and managers into advice decision-makers can use to accelerate the public policy process.
  • Writora is a new set of tools that allows co-authors, editors and clients to work together to create better Microsoft Word documents, making collaboration easy and intuitive, and accelerating effective document creation.
  • Squareknot is a site for creating user friendly, step-by-step, branched user guides – a GitHub for how-to guides. Customers collaborate using crowdsourcing philosophies to create informative user guides that can accelerate learning by workers or citizens.
  • MilkCrate, a digital hub to help Philadelphia (and eventually other cities) become healthier, more equitable and sustainable, brings together news, events, lifestyle tips, business listings and other engaging information to help people more easily make sustainable choices, which accelerates achievement of environmental sustainability goals.
  • Sixty Vocab is a foreign language vocabulary building tool combining the latest web technology, proven learning techniques and interactive gaming to give users a better way to learn the fundamentals of a subject and accelerate learning.

At our CAP event, Gal Alon, the CEO and founder of Insight, told me that Microsoft technologies were almost non-existent in the startup world just five years ago. Today, that story is very different. Many of these new companies and others are embracing the new Microsoft Azure Government Cloud, launched last week, including Dwolla, recently featured in a Forbes magazine story, and Citizinvestor, which Government Technology highlighted.